Thursday, September 27, 2007

Playing with my food

As a child, I loved games of imagination, and was forever mapping new continents on the local rocks and trees and streams and populating them with hapless neighborhood children assigned to represent complex genealogies of colorful characters with multisyllabic names. In more recent years, my playground, like that of many urban Americans, has been restaurants. The venue, the menu, the lighting, the designers, the company, the relationships with chefs and suppliers and critics and diners are among the multiple variables in an improvisation in which everyone conspires to assist in and be promoted by a winning performance.

I have that in common with at least one other person I have known for whom a successful performance required props on the order of wagyu carpaccio, gold leafed sushi, and magna of Cristal. As tiresome and embarrassing as I found him and his insistence on misrecognizing my own epicureanism as equivalent to his own, there is no way around the fact that I enjoyed many of the benefits of his company and incidental largesse. I might buy local when no one is watching, where he would do so solely to burnish his image (actually this is not a good example, because buying local was not something that registered to him, or his people. That may have changed.), but the uncomfortable truth is that however much I might want to distinguish our values, interests, and styles, we weren't all that different either in our net impact or in our recognition that dining out was about so much more than just the food.

So anyway, this is partial context to how I came to frequent a particular Hollywood restaurant that caters to the self important. Once, Benicio del Toro reached across my table to introduce himself to Don Rickles, who introduced himself to me in turn. On another occasion, Ron Jeremy held court at an adjacent table with a number of very young female--colleagues. Once George Clooney was in the house, another time Robert Shapiro. There was a big menu, but only a few items worth ordering: the swordfish, the steak a la Dabney Coleman, the bouillabaisse, the caesar. And cocktails.

Occasionally it was really a lot of fun, late at night (and they are open late, so it was actually kind of a default or last resort) to show up and be recognized and get a table right away.

I've been away for several years now but ended up on the red vinyl banquette again the other night, for much the same prosaic reason--late hours--that often put me there in the past.

This time, it was no fun at all. The loud parties of tarted up women and botoxed men (some older ones with hennaed hair) and the waiters with their calibrated posture between abuse and subservience and especially the meat-- a steak that I'd enjoyed in the past was just so obscenely thick and fleshy, I might as well have torn into the haunch of a living beast. And then there was the feeling that my friend and I both felt nothing, except that the past truly was past.

One of my favorite LA restaurants was always Yongsusan. This time, the banchan included things like iceberg salad in mayonnaise dressing and dumplings (not mandoo). There was a mingy eun dae gu jorim with bizarrely tablet-shaped slices of turnip (2 of them, actually) and fried bits in the soup and other things tasted old or freezer burnt. The kimchee in cabbage leaf-- the piece de resistance, was soggy and poorly pickled. I even suspect this was frozen. I loved this place but I would now consider it one of the worst Korean restaurants. Barely even a Korean restaurant.

Craft LA was also a disappointment. I was prepared to allow that Century City might have been transformed but in fact it was troupes of conventioneers wearing name tags, and giant portions of food (peas & prosciutto and sweetbreads for me), rather than the small focussed plates that made me fall in love with Craft back in the 1990s. That said, I haven't been to Craft proper in a couple years and maybe they've changed too. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson came and left and looked terrific actually. So what do I know.

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